Papers presented by Walter Friedman since 2019

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"Freeman Hunt, the Merchant’s Magazine, and a Belief in Commerce as Civilization"

Walter Friedman, Harvard Business School


A striking characteristic of antebellum America was the number of businesses formed to promote financial transparency, commercial training, and publish data and stories about commerce. These businesses, located mostly but not entirely in northern and mid-Atlantic states, included credit reporting agencies, commercial colleges and institutes, and new magazines and journals. One of the leading information-producing enterprises was Hunt’s Merchant’s Magazine, published by Freeman Hunt starting in 1839. Hunt started the magazine with an article entitled, “Commerce as Connected with the Progress of Civilization.” He aimed to publish everything about business, including articles about law, inventions, finance, and also new statistics about output, crop yields, population growth, and other items. The Merchants’ Magazine was an unprecedented collection of commercial news that, more than any publication prior, was intended to bring together all practical and interesting knowledge about the world of commerce – in that way it echoed an earlier journal Hunt helped to run, the American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge. The Merchant’s magazine, which proceeded the British Economist by several years, contained highly detailed articles about technological innovation and also hosted debates about America’s economic future, including by both pro- and anti-slavery writers. It also included didactic biographies of famous merchants – a “Plutarch’s Lives” of American businessmen, Henrietta Larson remarked. Hunt’s work was not, as he called it, “science of business,” but rather an amalgam of data, custom, policy, prejudice, and belief. Still, he and other entrepreneurs shared a view that the triumph of capitalism in the United States would occur, to a significant degree, in the “minds” and “decision-making abilities” of businesspeople, in the form of information, new skills, new methods of financial accounting or factory management, and improved data. This group of entrepreneurs played an underappreciated role in the rise of capitalism and the coming of bureaucratic organizations in the United States.